National Writing Project

RSN Rural Institute from Different Perspectives

By: Joyce Sheehey, Kathy Lawrence, Laura Tracy Baisden
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 5
Date: November-December 2002

Summary: Reflective pieces from three authors who attended the Rural Sites Network's first summer institute, which was held July 27-August 2, 2002 in Burlington, Vermont.

 

When a call was put out for writers to cover the NWP Rural Sites Network Rural Institute, The Voice ended up with three different pieces—and different takes—on the event. Below, as a way to include multiple voices into the presentation of the first-time event, we present Kathy Lawrence's article with commentary from two other writers, Joyce Sheehey and Laura Tracy Baisden, inset.

Put a group of teachers together in a room, and you're sure to have lively discussions. Assemble any subset of National Writing Project teachers, and you know that the ensuing conversations will inevitably turn to writing and focus on ways that we help students become independent, effective communicators through the written word. Take a small group of writing project teachers working in similar situations (say, rural schools), bring them together for a week on a college campus nestled between some lush mountains and the nation's largest landlocked lake, and what you get is a lot like, ...well...summer camp.

Unsuspecting campers (teacher-consultant teams from Arizona, West Virginia, Nebraska, Vermont, and Georgia) came together with mentors from South Dakota, Louisiana, and Michigan for the first-ever NWP Rural Sites Network Rural Institute on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vermont, from July 27 to August 2. We were immediately thrust into communal living with people we had never met. The theory here (endorsed by camp coun-selors and NWP directors alike) is that sharing a bathroom and brushing your teeth alongside someone for a week goes a long way toward making friends out of strangers. And it's true!

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The institute was an experience like none other, a combination of intense daily workshops and evenings at summer camp. Since we were all housed in the same dorm on UVM's campus, it was like a seven-day slumber party. . . . Teachers stayed up late in their rooms recounting, for example, the moving stories they had witnessed during a demonstration of techniques in digital storytelling. For some it was late-night discussions of middle school novel recommendations over a poker game.
—Joyce Sheehey, from a letter to the president of the Vermont Council of Teachers of English
***

A glance at the directors' clipboards left no doubt that the week was to be action packed, with time allotted for demonstrations, writing, and discussion, as well as sightseeing around Vermont's rural landscape. Each day began officially at 8:00 a.m., with most teacher-consultants rising earlier for a brisk walk to the waterfront or a yoga session in the first-floor lounge. Daily class time presented rich opportunities for dialogue about writing and teaching in rural places, and about helping our students to cultivate, appreciate, and celebrate their own sense of place through their writing.

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During the institute I was able to meet teachers from around the country who deal with many of the same issues involving education that we do in our area.
—Laura Tracy Baisden, from a letter to her writing project site
***

The Arizona team offered the first demonstration and provided us with a strand that kept resurfacing during the week in different contexts. In Arizona, a physical border exists between two nations, marked clearly with immigration officials and the border patrol. But it's the invisible borders, however—the borders between cultures—that give the Arizona teachers a vast territory to explore in literature and in writing. Perhaps without intending to, they challenged the rest of us to examine the borders or barriers in our own teaching/learning communities. Time and again over the week, we talked about alienation, about economic and social barriers, about the farm kids and the "townies," and we realized that we had more in common with each other than perhaps we thought at first.

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There's no doubt that we were left with questions: Can we strengthen our connections to rural populations? Do we make an effort to observe and manage the borders within our classrooms, schools, and communities?
—Joyce Sheehey
***

Finding that common ground has led to several interesting collaborations for the current school year. Teacher-consultants from Vermont, Nebraska, and Arizona, for example, have decided to read the same novels with their students (Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath), exchange book-related writing pieces, share seeds native to their own regions, plant gardens, and share recipes. Other joint projects across sites and across states involve high school students corresponding and meeting with college students about common readings. A session during the institute about digital storytelling and one about NWP's Rural Voices Radio series has inspired a number of participants to begin to think about how they, too, might capture and share the powerful thoughts and emotions that undoubtedly emerge when we ask students and teachers to contemplate "place." Good work, important work, is afoot in classrooms right now because of the work that was done at the RSN Rural Institute and the friendships that developed there.

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I believe issues of technology are of particular importance to rural educators, as we need to continually find new ways of connecting our students to the larger world.
—Laura Tracy Baisden
***

This writer would be lying, though, if I said that the institute was all about work. Thankfully, there was time in the evenings to simply enjoy being in the Green Mountain State. As a member of the host team, I have to admit that I took a lot of pride in showing off the Vermont countryside as we crisscrossed our way to the Trapp Family Lodge in beautiful Stowe, the Bread Loaf campus in Ripton, a cider mill, Ben and Jerry's headquarters, and a tiny school (complete with swimming hole) in West Bolton.

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I must take a moment to thank the wonderful Vermont host team. Their efforts on behalf of this first Rural Sites institute were remarkable. We never had a moment to become bored. We traveled around the state, and truly got a feel for the history and beauty of Vermont. They welcomed us into their homes and hearts, in ways that only writing project people can.
—Laura Tracy Baisden
***

Mealtimes were definitely a social occasion—whether we were enjoying boxed-lunches on the green, a sit-down dinner on theshores of Lake Champlain, or a last-night barbecue and campfire; the laughter was infectious, the sentiments sincere.

In the course of the week, we set goals, shared private pieces of ourselves, and challenged one another. We also promised to stay in touch and to infiltrate each other's worlds with help from technology, and when it was all over, we offered parting gifts. Isn't that what summer camp is all about?

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With our connections to the National Writing Project made stronger, and with the help of our new friends in rural sites across the country, we are beginning to seek answers together.
—Joyce Sheehey
***

About the Authors Kathy Lawrence is a teacher-consultant with the National Writing Project in Vermont and the Learning Center coordinator at Hiawatha Elementary School in Essex Junction, Vermont.

Joyce Sheehey, teacher-consultant with the National Writing Project in Vermont, teaches English and journalism at South Burlington High School in South Burlington, Vermont.

Laura Tracy Baisden teaches at Logan Senior High School in Logan, West Virginia. She is a teacher-consultant with both the Marshall University Writing Project and the Central West Virginia Writing Project and directs a writing project satellite site for Logan County teachers.

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